By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Lucia Rijker sits on a chair at the Wild Card Boxing Club, leaning forward to watch two men spar. She's quiet and attentive, and though there are people all around her, she seems alone. Her face is striking: full lips, high cheekbones, wiry bronze hair only partly hidden by a black baseball cap. Her eyes, when met, prove warm and lively. Only the obvious strength of her torso, her almost palpable aura of solitude and apartness, suggest that she is the most feared female boxer in the world.
The Wild Card, which is owned by Lucia's trainer, Freddie Roach, is at the back of a rundown mini-mall near the corner of Santa Monica and Vine. A small sign pasted on the door reads "Better Daze" - a reference, perhaps, to the masochistic pleasures of being punched repeatedly in the head. When you open the door, the noise hits you: the metronomic tick of the jump ropes; the thunderous roar of the speed bags; the thud of the heavy bags; the equine panting and snorting of two heavyweights sparring in the ring; the electronic beeper loudly signaling the end of a round; the pulsing bass and drum of Power 106 FM; the man at the front desk picking up the phone and bellowing: "WILD CAARRD!"
And all this on a day when the gym is officially closed. Someone walks by, and it turns out to be Roberto Duran. Dripping with sweat, his mustache shaggy and unclipped, he looks like an old Panamanian peasant who just wandered into town on the back of a donkey. A boxer, naked but for the bright white towel wrapped around his chocolate-colored waist, is talking money into a white cell phone; cupped in his red boxing glove, it looks more like a Virginia Slim. Another boxer, Hector Lopez, is also strutting around in a towel when somebody asks him who his next fight's going to be with. "Some unfortunate person named Valdez," he replies. At the Wild Card, confidence is not a product that needs to be delivered. You either have it, or you become very good at pretending you have it.
Lucia Rijker has it. With a 36-0 record as a kickboxer (25 knockouts), and an 11-0 record as a boxer (10 knockouts), why not? Last year she was crowned the WIBF (Women's International Boxing Federation) junior welterweight champion, and, pound for pound, she is considered the world's best female boxer. The question is, can anyone challenge her? The obvious candidate is Christy Martin, the world's best-known female boxer. Two years ago Martin put women's boxing on the map when, nose spattered with blood, she stole the show fighting on the undercard of a Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno bout and wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But so far, although a purse of $1.5 million has been offered, Martin has refused to fight Lucia Rijker (pronounced Loo-see-uh Rye-ker). She has also wondered aloud as to whether the muscular Lucia is really a woman at all. Since Lucia is much better looking than Martin, most people don't take the innuendo too seriously.
"Let me tell you something about boxing," says Macka Foley, a gravel-voiced trainer at the Wild Card. "You never know, it may come in useful." A former light heavyweight who took a bullet to the head in Vietnam, Foley wants to show me what it's like to fight someone who knows how to fight. Not someone who's angry or tense - just the opposite, in fact. Someone who's infuriatingly confident and calm.
It's the look in Macka's eyes that's scary. Suddenly, he starts to shuffle and bounce around behind the front desk as if his feet were on springs: "Yeah, you wanna fight?" he says, throwing me a look of withering skepticism. "Come on and get me." His hands drop loose to his sides, just as Ali's did, his eyes remain fixed on mine, and suddenly a left jab has gone whistling past my ear. Macka may be 47 years old, but his hands are still lightning fast. The next thing I know, one of them's gripping the side of my face. "If I hit you hard right here," he explains, breaking into a smile that suggests nothing would give him more pleasure, "I'd dislocate your jaw." Lesson over. "Boxing," Macka sums up, "is all about fear and how you deal with it. Some boxers forget to breathe and go rigid, which is like putting your foot on the accelerator when the car's in neutral. A boxer has to be relaxed when someone's trying to kill him. He has to breathe."
Lucia is relaxed. As far as Macka's concerned, she's number one, two, three and four in the world, with Christy Martin maybe coming in fifth. Lucia would destroy Christy Martin. And there are plenty of men out there she could beat, too. But first she has to take care of her next opponent. In a few weeks, she'll be fighting a former police officer named Lisa "The Heat" Ested.
One afternoon I watch Lucia spar with Sammy "Toy" Stewart, a gaunt Liberian flyweight several inches shorter than Lucia and 30 pounds lighter, but with plenty of boxing smarts and fast hands. I'd seen them spar once before, and Sammy had given her trouble. Now Lucia's got her jab working and seems more in control. She boxes carefully, correctly, protecting herself at all times and picking her spots to attack. This is what differentiates her from most other women boxers, who are exciting - when they are not simply amateurish - precisely because they don't defend. They just attack, with a recklessness that can leave men slackjawed with amazement. Of course, the all-out attacking style is enjoyed by many precisely because it reinforces a cherished stereotype - namely, that women are hysterical. It's not foxy boxing, it's crazy boxing.